Thursday, 3 June 2021
Maritime Jurisdiction Bill 2021 [Seanad]: Second Stage
Holly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
Ireland's maritime area extends to almost seven times its land mass, which is one of the largest sea to land ratios of any EU state. This area contains considerable natural resources and opportunities for sustainable development that will help support our coastal and island communities if managed properly. This Bill is described as a technical one to update and gather different national and international laws concerning our maritime space. It outlines different types of maritime zones and attempts to clarify some of the State's rights regarding each one.
However, with these rights come responsibilities. The law in its current form and policy context does not address the obligations that accompany the rights it asserts. For this Bill to achieve its purpose, we need greater co-ordination and, crucially, the involvement of sectors impacted, in addition to proper resourcing of the State bodies that will be expected to regulate activities and enforce the law hundreds of kilometres out at sea.
I will highlight three points regarding the Bill: an absence of due process and involvement of impacted communities; the capacity of State services to enact our rights and responsibilities, including an incident last week involving an Irish fishing vessel; and an absence of climate and biodiversity obligations.
First, the absence of pre-legislative scrutiny should be a matter of concern to all of us. Not only does pre-legislative scrutiny enable a full exploration of the implications of the Bill, it allows affected communities and industries to share their perspectives and concerns. Without that process, the law will be pushed through with disgracefully little input. Coastal towns and villages, fishing organisations, maritime tourism, rescue services and volunteers, energy and geographic experts and sailors, all have vital experience and knowledge that could and should inform this law. Without those inputs, we have to ask in whose interest is this Bill.
The final version of the maritime planning system was rushed through against the objection of fishers and many of us. The maritime area planning Bill is on the way. While it is encouraging that proper attention is being paid to our maritime space, it is wrong this is not being done in partnership with the relevant communities and sectors. Ministers can point to consultations and meetings they have had, but what mechanisms are actually in place for people to challenge aspects of the law that go against their wishes, or to contribute to laws that are rushed through which directly affect them? Not only do fishing and coastal communities feel as though the Government is ignoring them, they often feel it is working against them. The fishing protest in Cork last week is the latest example of a deeply frustrated sector that, despite assurances from Government members, feels there is little interest in supporting the industry.
It should also be noted that this Bill comes under the Department of Foreign Affairs. Fishing communities are already burdened trying to keep up with obligations regarding the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and recently there are new requirements from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Basically, they are being pushed around between sections and Departments, unsure of where to go and who has responsibility for what. Instead of streamlining issues, recent changes appear to be complicating matters, more than anything.
Inshore fishers in Dublin and on the east coast are experiencing disruption caused by surveys for potential offshore wind farms. Limitations on their capacity to fish are being imposed with little consultation and vastly insufficient supports. They have also made the reasonable request for formal structures allowing facilitated mediation and arbitration for developers and fishing communities, if necessary. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is working towards a seafood offshore renewable liaison process but is unsure on arbitration. There is a very clear need for this type of mechanism. Inshore fishers are making very sensible and very reasonable requests. If they are to have any faith in the new planning system and offshore developments these structures need to be put in place. If Government and civil servants had listened to these concerns earlier, liaison processes might already be operating and functioning.
There is a value, not to mind an obligation, in listening to the experience and perspectives of people who live by the sea and depend on it for their livelihoods. Unfortunately, this is another Bill that is ignoring this wealth of knowledge. It is worth noting that any of the people I spoke to in fishing communities welcomed the introduction of offshore wind energy, but at the very early site investigation stage are losing out on two thirds of their annual income. That is just at the site investigation stage, so what are they to expect when it comes to the construction stage? If we want offshore wind energy, which we all do, this has to be done in a fair way.
Second, this Bill’s assertion of different rights is only as good as the capacity to regulate and enforce those rights. Regrettably, it is clear we lack that capacity at the moment, not to mind addressing the contents of this Bill. The Naval Service is the clearest example of this. Due to years of underinvestment, we lack the personnel to operate our ships. Speaking at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence last week, Gerard Guinan, general secretary of the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, explained that: "number[s] of personnel actually available to go to sea is extremely limited... In some instances, vessels worth tens of millions of Euro are idle, for [the] lack of appropriately trained staff." We know from media reports that one third of our fishery patrols have been cancelled by the Naval Service so far this year and that the State has had to rely on EU ships to patrol fishing waters due to naval shortages.
There is little point in bringing in a new marine jurisdiction law without the necessary resources to make it operational. Without investment in our Naval Service, the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority rescue teams, scientific researchers and other relevant groups and bodies, this Bill is just performance presented as substance. Incidents of a Spanish trawler involved in a dangerous confrontation with Irish fishermen last Friday, and another trawler detained for allegedly fishing illegally in Irish waters, indicate the type and scale of issues that arise. In the case of the confrontation, the affected fishermen said they felt the State services were not available to support or help them. This is a very real reminder of the issues at stake. This is not just a technical Bill. It concerns the lives and livelihoods of coastal communities, the same communities that have been denied input into it.
Finally, the Bill has no references to climate and biodiversity obligations. It references renewable energy, geothermal energy and fossil fuels, but is light on the corresponding climate and biodiversity dimensions. At a time when the Government is progressing the climate action Bill and is committed to legally protecting approximately 30% of our marine areas, it is contradictory and nonsensical not to have explicit references to our environmental obligations in this Bill. Numerous international laws and EU directives that intersect with this Bill are not sufficiently included or considered. If we are to take the climate and biodiversity crisis seriously these matters need to be present in all relevant laws, including this one.
It is essential that this law provides both rights and responsibilities. We need frameworks to encourage the sustainable development of our marine resources, structures to protect sustainable and inshore fishing and mechanisms that really value our coastal communities. This law is an opportunity to outline and promote our marine space and potential but it needs to be done with due process and, most importantly, in partnership with those affected.